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Reporting on Shere Hite

April 29th, 2006

Dr Petra

The name Shere Hite is synonymous for many with sex. Her ‘Hite Reports’, whilst not without critics, have provided some insights into how people talk about their sex lives and relationships.

Yesterday’s Guardian newspaper included an interview with Hite who is on a promotional tour in the UK.

I found the Guardian interview fascinating – a classic example of selective reporting by a journalist of a sex expert.

I’ll let you decide what you think of the rather snippy piece, but my observations were:

The piece got critical about sex research without understanding sex research

Every day we see countless poor sex studies reported in the press (and The Guardian is no exception). This may include an uncritical acceptance of a study that’s limited, flawed or biased, or simply regurgitating a PR story disguised as ‘sex research’. Yet within this interview with Shere Hite (where we learn relatively little about the woman or her research) a journalist who doesn’t appear to know a lot about research
methods (and particularly sex research) gets really critical with the researcher, her methods, and participants.

We’re told within the piece how Hite’s methods invite responses from only those with sexual problems and unrepresentative samples. Whilst there have been criticisms of both Hite’s use of methods, phrasing of questions and interpretation of data, her work is no more biased or flawed than many other sex studies that never see any such criticism within the press.

Many participants respond to Hite’s questions and not all of those have negative things to say, indeed much of her work captures people’s positive descriptions of sex that range beyond the usual ‘how much, how many, who with’ sex surveys. It’s a shame that someone writing such a review hadn’t appeared to read Hite’s work, and lacked the skills to place it within the wider context of sex research.

Sex research (and researchers) aren’t presented very well in this piece

The Guardian interview focuses, inevitably, on Shere Hite’s appearance. It makes a point of how this has been a problem for Hite in the past, but yet it continues to do so – with an undercurrent of criticism. There appears to be a problem that Hite might have questioned how she and others have been portrayed by the press. There are references to her clothing, golden hair, and pale skin.

What amazed me is how within this piece, placed beside other criticism of Hite and her work these descriptions didn’t feel flattering. Yet journalists who’ve uncritically given a platform to ‘sexperts’ who’ve no real talent or ability use very similar techniques to promote their interviewee.

The Guardian and it’s sister paper The Observer are no strangers to this approach, having given space to several ‘sexperts’ over the past few years who they’ve described in terms of their physical appearance maintaining the idea that being a sex expert is a whole lot to do with looking young and acting sexy. In the case of Hite’s interview references to personal appearance are used instead to question her skills and abilities.

There’s something about the way the media approach sex experts (particularly female ones) that makes it seem okay to comment and question your appearance, lifestyle and sexual behaviour – something that doesn’t happen in other areas of social science or health. Some ‘sexperts’ make a point of playing on this to try and imply a sense of expertise (which is often rewarded in reports via journalists. However, discussions of physical appearance are often used more abusively by journalists against experts they’re suspicious of.

In fact I’d go as far as saying you can use this as a media analysis tool. The greater the media focus on a ‘sexperts’ physical attributes the lower that person’s skills will actually be. And the more negative references to appearance given by a journalist, the more skilled the sex expert will be.

Who can blame sex researchers for not talking to the press?

As I’ve mentioned countless times in this blog, the people you see giving sex advice in the public eye are often not those considered all that great within the wider sexological community of therapists, researchers and practitioners. Often those working in healthcare, therapy or academia are reluctant to get involved with the media. They worry they won’t be taken seriously, could be misquoted, or may be presented in a way that will harm their work or career.

This Guardian piece has led to lots of discussion amongst sex researchers and therapists and those who’re used to dealing with the media have seen it as another example of why there’s really no point in dealing with the press, whilst those who were considering working with the media have been scared off from talking to journalists.

Of course we need to critique sex research and sex researchers, but for heaven’s sake if that’s our mission we should be applying this approach to all sex stories and all sex experts.

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